Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Your Tongue is a Rudder

An interesting thing happened to me on the Internet a couple of days ago. I conducted a kind of oblivious, involuntary social media experiment. With variables and data and stuff. The results were a little shocking to me at first, because they involved being sworn at and called a few derogatory names, but I'm not really upset about it so much as fascinated by it.

Some time ago, I wrote an essay about babies and sleep called The Answer to the Question. It was a short, fairly matter-of-fact piece about how I used to get really worked up over Sullivan's awful sleep habits. I wrote about how I felt like I was drowning in a lot of advice that didn't work, and how one day a friend told me his constant wakings were a fairly normal thing (not something broken, not something that needed to be fixed) and about how that person's words helped me feel a lot better about the whole thing. I wanted, in writing that essay, to help someone else feel better too.

I wrote it for Coffee + Crumbs, which has a fairly large following and focuses on more literary essays, with minimalistic design choices and a very encouraging, we're-all-in-this-together approach. In short: not the kind of place you'd find click-bait listicles designed to get all the mommies virtually clawing each others' eyes out on Facebook. As is almost always the case at C+C, the comments on that article were 100% positive; people could relate, they'd been there too, they were relieved, they were encouraged or they knew someone who would be...they were nice. All of them. Every single one. A rare spot on the Internet, for sure.

Today, the article was reposted on another mom blog, which I'm just not going to name here.

They, the editors at said mom blog, changed the picture, the title, and the caption. That's it. They didn't change a single word of the actual essay (dependant and manipulated variables, right there. Did I ever tell you I won a science fair once?).

Hypothesis: Same essay, same not overwhelming in volume but generally agreeable response. I checked Facebook Monday morning expecting to read a comment or two from a couple of other mothers who were in the trenches too and appreciated a word of encouragement.

Results: What actually happened felt a little like opening my front door to get the morning paper and being greeted by wolves on the porch. Except, instead of wolves, angry Internet Moms. They read the part where I said that people often asked me how Sullivan was sleeping and took it to mean that I was throwing a Royal Internet Hissy Fit about being asked that. They didn't finish reading the article; they took instead to the Facebook comments section and called me loads of colourful names, said I was too easily offended and self-centred, said I was what was wrong with moms today, etc. It was a lot to wake up to. 100 or so comments by 8 AM. More now. (It wasn't the meanest I've seen the internet, and a lot of the anger was directed towards Moms in General, not specifically me, but it was still, at the very least, unsettling.)

I was confused at first. It was the exact same essay. Perfect strangers, the first time around, had generally seemed to enjoy it and even benefit from it. Perfect strangers, now, were personally offended by my idiocy, selfishness, and general all-around horribleness. It didn't make sense.

Conclusion: Internetting is hard and confusing.

You might think I'm a little bit silly for what follows; I'm not apologizing, just warning you.

I know the General Rule of the Internet is that you DO NOT READ THE COMMENT SECTION. People always say this to me when I tell them a story about something I read in the comment section. They say, "Suzy! Why were you reading that? It's the dregs of the internet!" So I've been trying to give it up... But what about when it's your comment section?

Besides, Sullivan and I were both sick on Monday, so I didn't have a lot else to do. And besides (again), I wanted to know why the two identical essays had had such opposite receptions (science!). So I read the comment section of my article on the Nameless Mommy Blog's Facebook page. Nay, I studied it.

A thing that struck me at first was how many people mentioned they hadn't finished the article. A thing that became obvious soon after was that a large number of people hadn't actually read the article at all, just the caption and title, which I hadn't written. I thought it was kind of weird for a stranger go to out and say horrible things about another stranger based on the title of an essay they'd written, but this is the Internet, so. Whatevs.

That was when I broke the second the rule of the Internet: not only did I read the comments, I entered in and replied to one. Or two or three. Oops.

Everyone knows that you shouldn't engage with angry people in comment sections. Everyone knows this. But I am the kind of person who wants to, for whatever reason. If someone calls me an idiot for something I strongly believe in and have put out there into the world, that's fine. But if someone calls me an idiot because they think I believe something I don't at all, I can't help but say, "Hey there, please don't put your words in my mouth." Also, if this many people think I said something I didn't, I thought, maybe I did say it without meaning to. I'm okay with asking someone to help me understand why I've offended them. So I did that.

(In a nice way, of course, because I recognize that people on the Internet are also people off the Internet.)

It was a matter of random selection...I had a lot of angry commenters to choose from. The woman ranting and raving about 'this generation?' The woman swearing a blue streak with a profile picture of herself cradling a golden-haired child? Nah, I thought, they won't hear me. There was a girl who said something kind of snarky about how I needed to 'get over myself.' It had started a good-sized thread of ladies venting about me and People Like Me and how awful we were and how we were going to wreck it for everyone else. Okay, her.

"Hey," I began, "So, I'm the one who wrote this essay..."

We had a decent conversation; I feel like we ended up in a good place and she understood me and I understood her and she apologized for hurting my feelings and I said she hadn't and we sent each other smiley face emoticons. I was surprised. So I did it again, almost more out of curiosity than anything. I picked a woman who said I needed to work on my people skills and that everyone in my life was going to stop caring about me and leave me alone soon. "Hey!" I said, working on my people skills, "I'm not here to argue or defend myself; I was just wondering if..."

We went back and forth a bit and in the end we were talking about our kids and our Christmas holidays. It wasn't a bad little chat (she was just tired; it had been a long holiday and she was really ready for her kids to go back to school).

That day, I learned some things about writing on the Internet and, I guess, about writing anywhere and, I guess, about saying things in general. Some of them are very obvious things that I knew before now, but now I really know them, you know?

1. People who write mean things on the internet are people too, and people aren't perfect, not even faceless internet people. We call them trolls, here in blogland, but they're people. They get really fired up about things (sometimes important things, sometimes not) and they feel like they need to share their opinion in a place where other people will see it and validate it (much like I'm doing right now, actually). Sometimes they're really rude about it, but that doesn't always mean they're automatically wrong. Some people have this uncanny ability to be both rude and right. Sometimes it's because they believe strongly that an attitude they've encountered in cyberspace is actually harmful and that they need to be the bastion of truth to a weary world, regardless of if they hurt someone's feelings in the process or not. They might even feel that the person deserves to have their feelings hurt. I'm not saying it's right; I'm saying that trolls are more complex than just I'm an angry old man living in my mom's basement and I want to make a young woman cry today. Maybe they want to hurt someone with their words but sometimes they just honestly don't realize that the person they're aiming their vitriol at could conceivably read it (this was the case with a commenter I talked to on Monday, who was pretty dang embarrassed that I saw her comment).

(I guess the part of this that surprised me was that some trolls don't know they're trolls. They think they're just right. Here's a question you should probably ask yourself before you put your opinion on the internet: Do you think your rightness trumps everything else, including someone's feelings?)

2. You can say something (in an article or in a comment or in a conversation), and people might hear something else. Even if you feel like you're being very clear. Even worse: You can say something, and people might make a snap judgement about it based on another thing entirely, something out of your control. Some people have even decided that they're just going to hate you and what you've said before they've heard it. It's too bad, but you need to be prepared because it happens.

3. When this happens, you will not always be able to talk to every single person who misunderstood you or decided not to give you a chance to explain yourself. This is impossible, for one thing, and futile, for another. Because generally people make their minds up like they're building a brick house. The foundation is, unfortunately, largely based around their first impression, however brief or erroneous (in this case, the first impression was, unfortunately, the title and caption of my essay). They're rarely willing to (or able to) knock it down, get a new foundation and start from scratch unless they've got a really, really good reason to. So be careful: in many cases, you get one chance.

4. Sometimes, it'll actually be all your fault. You might have written something offensive or insensitive or just stupid, and the people of the internet would love to hold you accountable. Set down your pride and personal bias and go back to read what you've written again. If you screwed up, that's okay, because you're a person too. Either fix it, if possible, or make a note of it and try not to repeat the offence. You don't deserve to be called names, but this is the internet.

Which leads me to number 5. You can't write a lot of things on the internet and expect everyone to always love you and agree with you. I've seen it happen before where someone called a blogger ugly, and when someone else called them out on it they replied, "Yeah, well. She put her picture on the internet, so it's fair game." This logic makes me mad (we would never let it fly on an elementary school playground so why do adults think they can get away with it?) but it's also the reality of the internet, sadly. Some people do actually just sit around hating strangers' faces. It's weird, but they probably have other issues.

6. Be careful who you trust with your words. The blog who published my piece yesterday only changed a couple of seemingly innocuous things about my post, but the title was just a little more click-baity, and the caption was just a little more provocative. These things were designed to set the tone for the rest of the essay. They were designed to put people on the defensive (if people argue in the comments, the article will get more traffic, which means more $$$ for whoever's running the website) (You're welcome, Nameless Mommy Blog). I never want my words to put people in that mindset. I want to write encouraging things and helpful things and things that make people happy. So from now on, I'll probably try to stay away from websites whose goals don't align with mine. I just don't have time for that, that's not why I write. I'm thankful that there are relatively safe spaces on the internet to write; it's become one of my favourite little hobbies.

I guess that's it. I didn't learn anything else. Six things is a lot of things to learn in a day though. If you learned at a rate of Six things every day, you'd know 2,190 new things every year. Imagine if you lived to be 100.

Words, you guys. Dear internet trolls and internet regular people: can I leave you with some sweet Brand New lyrics?

Your tongue is a rudder, it steers the whole ship
Sends your words past your lips or keeps them safe behind your teeth
But the wrong words will strand you
Come off course while you sleep
Sweep your boat out to sea it's dashed to bits on the reef